The Long and Forgotten History of Texas' Mutualistas
If you’re a life-long Texan, you many have heard of a mutualistas. These mutual aid societies were part of a long tradition in Mexico, and found their way into Texas in the late 1800s. The organizations worked to provide low-income families with resources they otherwise might not have access to. While most disappeared in the 30s and 40s, throughout Texas today there are still a small number of in operation, including one thriving community mutualista in Waco that’s been around for more than 90 years.
As Louis Fajardo opens the doors to la mutualista sociedad de jornaleros, he walks towards a concrete wall.
"Let me turn the lights on so you can see what I’m talking about," Fajardo says.
Hanging on the wall are black-and-white photos, memories of the organization’s earliest days. Fajardo is a member and president of the group. He points to one specific photo.
“In 1924, these gentleman right here, on this particular day, under this tree which still exists, are the ones that decided to make the mutualista."
The Waco mutualista came together under the banner of union, fraternity and progress, with a specific interest in watching over the working-class community it came from. Its name even reflects that mission: In English, jornaleros means laborers. This idea – says University of Texas professor Emilio Zamora – is the main reason Mexicans that settled in Texas established these groups.
"They had to develop new methods for survival and advancements," Zamora says. "And one of them was the formation of organizations – mutual aid societies."
Across Texas, these groups provided services their community members were being denied, things like education and healthcare. Mutualistas also negotiated for better working conditions, and created insurance funds to take care of members. That made a huge difference in quality-of-life, according to Ernesto Fraga. He publishes El Tiempo, Waco’s local Hispanic newspaper, and his grandparents were some of the earliest members of Waco’s mutualista. Fraga says the mutualistas also preserved culture.
“And they were the ones that allowed for the voice of the Mexican-American community to pass on to the next generation and the generations after that.”
Heading into the 1900s, the popularity of mutualistas swelled, with more than 100 estimated to be in Texas. That boost -- Zamora says – happed, because at that time an “increasing number of Mexicans are brought in to fill the low-skilled occupations and low-waged occupations in the developing industries of the American southwest: ranching, farming, the railroads and mining”
But during the Great Depression, mutualistas faced financial hardships, and many closed their doors. Today, there’s about 6 still operating in Texas. Waco mutualista president Luis Fajardo says finances are still a concern for these groups. But the one in Waco has – in part – been buoyed for decades by the dance hall they own, and rent out for baptisms or quinceañeras.
La mutualista’s dance hall can fit about 400 people. On one night in December, it’s packed with teenagers dancing to cumbias, little kids running around and adults trying to talk to each other over the music. Nights like this one translate to money for the mutualista. Which, Fajardo says, they’ll use to pay bills.
“Then the other part, we take when we make a certain amount of money and we’ll say OK this is going into the scholarship fund, OK this is gonna go here, this is going there," Fajardo explains.
On a recent afternoon, the Waco mutualista hosted a Christmas gift giveaway. Part of the money Fajardo and the membership made this year went towards buying nearly $3,000 worth of toys – like dolls, trucks, and bikes, all given to neighborhood kids, like two-year-old AraBella Chavez.
“She just won a bike and that’s what she’s been wanting" says Misty Chavez, AraBella's mother.
Chavez is a mother of 5 and knows volunteers at the mutualista.
"So just having something like this is fun and its exciting for them, "Chavez says. "Especially if we ourselves cant afford to get something they want or need.”
"I'll do whatever it takes, along with the membership, to open up and succeed for the mutualista." - Louis Fajardo
Filling that gap is why mutualistas were founded in the first place. Fajarado says, even though the times have changed – la mutualista sociedad de jornaleros mission hasn’t. And he’s dedicated to making the mutualista stronger.
“I’ll do whatever it takes, along with the membership, to open up and succeed for the mutualista," Fajardo says. "Now and in the future.
In the New Year, Fajarado says the mutualista will continue with building improvements – they've already opened up the dance floor and updated light fixtures. But they’ll also look to encourage others to visit – people not just from their South Waco neighborhood, but the community at large.